Where Champions Play: Texas and the PGA

Texas has always been the laboratory, the breeding ground, and the mother lode of great golfers and great golfing events. The names go back nearly 100 years and include Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, Jimmy Demaret and Jack Burke, Ben Crenshaw and Lee Trevino, and Justin Leonard and Jordan Spieth. Together these legends could fill their own Texas-sized wing in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

These men ruled the golfing world within the Lone Star border, and their primary stage was the wide variety of PGA Tour and other professional golf events that have been hosted in Texas for even longer than there have been great players to play in them.

What do you expect from a state that has the third-longest tenured event on the PGA Tour? The Valero Texas Open, which began in 1922, is the longest-running professional tournament in the U.S., held in the same location—San Antonio—every year. Texas is also home to the all-time leading charity fundraiser on the PGA Tour, the Byron Nelson Championship, named after a true Texas legend. The Lone Star lineup continues with the 10th running tournament on the Tour, spotlighting one of the original golf sponsors, the Shell Houston Open, plus a tournament so famous it is known by a single name: Colonial.

Texas’s capital city, Austin, is the birthplace of the 50-and-over Senior Tour, which began with the Legends of Golf in 1978 at Onion Creek Country Club. Most recently, the World Golf Championships-Dell Match Play set up shop at Austin Country Club, one of the state’s first private clubs. The LPGA has selected Texas for a variety of tournaments over the years as well, currently holding the North Texas Shootout in Irving at Las Colinas Country Club.

The ever-scenic Horseshoe Bay, the first complete golf resort in the Texas Hill Country, hosts the popular annual spring Shootout at Horseshoe Bay Resort, partnering male and female professionals, such as Stuart Appleby and Katie Burnett.

“We have world-class golf courses here, and it’s always fun to have world-class players play  them. This has been so successful we are even expanding this great concept for 2017,” said Chief Marketing Officer Bryan Woodward.

When it comes to world-renowned golfers, Texas has long had that area covered, and the state has never lacked for equally renowned stages for those players and others to showcase their talents before tens of thousands of Lone Star golf fans.

This convergence of outstanding players, courses, and events is perhaps best summarized by the Texas pro-golf mantra, expressed long ago by 12-time PGA Tour champion and Dallas native Justin Leonard. “I always felt Texas players should play in Texas tournaments,” he said. And for decades, indeed they have.

352sun-vto16-2Texas’s Most Historic Golf Event

The Texas Open has endured for nearly 100 years because of vision, great players, and memorable moments, all in a wonderfully relaxing host location.

It began as a winter attraction in sunny South Texas, at a time when players were looking for ways to break up the long train trip between the East Coast and the West. The Texas Open debuted at Brackenridge Park, Texas’s first public course, in 1922, advertising warm wintertime temperatures and Texas hospitality at local downtown hotels. But it mainly advertised a purse of $5,000.

That sum was certainly eye-catching for the times, but what was even more alluring was the fact that it was more than three times what the U.S. Open offered then, an early example of Texas forward thinking. Walter Hagen, the Tiger Woods of his era, won the second Texas Open in 1923, an event dutifully noted by the influential East Coast papers. From that time, professional golf was on in Texas and it hasn’t slowed down since.

A rain delay in the early years of the Texas Open postponed the finish until Monday, allowing the players to sit down and draft the bylaws which would become the PGA Tour.

Through the years, the greatest players and some of the biggest matches have taken center-stage at the onetime winter event, which moved from winter to fall for a time and then back to prime springtime dates at the swanky new JW Marriott Resort and Spa and the Tournament Players Club (TPC) San Antonio course.

The Texas Open was the site of one of two Byron Nelson-Ben Hogan playoffs on the pro tour (won by Nelson in 1940), as well as three straight victories by Arnold Palmer in the 1960s, and three in seven years by Justin Leonard in the 2000s. It was the first Texas pro event played by Tiger Woods in his 1996 rookie season, along with the first pro win by Crenshaw, with local resident victories by David Ogrin and Jimmy Walker.

Springtime SHO-Time

The Bayou City of Houston has provided some of Texas’s most influential teachers in Jack Burke Jr. and Sr., along with David Marr Sr., and Jimmy Demaret. But city fathers felt they lacked a place to display their professional golf talents. They took care of that in 1946 with the founding of the Houston Open, now sponsored by Shell. Originally the Houston Open was held at the private River Oaks Country Club, but the next year it moved to Memorial Park, a public course built in the midst of the Great Depression that endures to this day as a golf shrine open for all.

Byron Nelson won the first Houston Open, defeating Ben Hogan by two shots, and the event has soared ever since with winners like Burke and Palmer, Trevino, Fred Couples, and Phil Mickelson. Like most Texas events, it has also kept a keen eye on the future with its move a decade ago to the Golf Club of Houston, where the longtime organizing body, the Houston Golf Association, has plenty of room for future expansion.

“When you look back at all the great Houston players who have played and won here, the history made, and the money raised for charity, we certainly feel like we’ve been a big part of Texas golf, both in the past, the present, and certainly in the future,” said Houston Open Tournament Director Steve Timms.

One Word Says It All for Colonial

May 29, 2016; Fort Worth, TX, USA; during the final round of the 2016 Dean & Deluca Invitational at Colonial Country Club. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to one-name entertainment or sports superstars like Cher or Bono, Tiger or Arnie, no additional information is usually needed, and that’s certainly the case with the storied Colonial in Fort Worth. It was the site of the second U.S. Open held west of the Mississippi River, and it has been the host of a PGA Tour classic event on the Fort Worth riverside since 1946, the longest-held pro-golf event at the same course outside of the Masters Tournament.

Not only has the Colonial course hosted a U.S. Open, it has also hosted a U.S. Women’s Open, along with the 1970s designated tournament, the precursor of the Players Championship. In 2003, all eyes were on Colonial again when female world number one Annika Sorenstam received a sponsor exemption and used it to great fanfare, playing against 115 men on the PGA Tour.

“You look at all the great events and the great players who have been to Colonial and continue to come every year, and you can see that this tournament will always be a classic,” said longtime tournament manager Dennis Roberson. “While others are looking to relocate or update, we still have our Colonial classic layout.”

Like Memorial Park, Colonial was built in the midst of the Great Depression. It was designed by John Bredemus, known as the “Father of Texas Golf,” and Perry Maxwell, with help from Texan Ralph Plummer, on the banks of the Trinity River near downtown Fort Worth.

When the U.S. Open headed to Colonial in 1941, course managers were given the mandate from the United States Golf Association to toughen the course, a directive with which the architects were happy to comply. The result was the famous par-4 third hole, the par-3 fourth hole, and the long par-4 fifth, known collectively as the “Horrible Horseshoe.” Decades of golfers— from Hogan to Crenshaw to Spieth—have all fallen victim to the Horrible Horseshoe at one time or another, but have returned year after year for the challenge of its classic design.

ben-hogan-statue_credit-colonial-county-club“Just to know my name is going to be on the (first tee) Wall of Champions forever—and to come back and look at it and remember my victory here—is something that’s always going to be special to me and my career,” said 2016 Colonial winner Spieth, who grew up 35 miles from Colonial and got one of his first sponsor exemptions as an amateur here.

While the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club is the only other tournament to be held in the same location longer than Colonial, both are similar in that thankfully nothing ever seems to change for either. Both tournaments still feature the huge manual scoreboard next to the 18th green, known for creating a dramatic pause before the player’s score is revealed for another hole. Both are run by club members organized by committees, and both have the same clubhouse, viewing areas, and ease of access that has long been bypassed by the more modern corporate arenas, not to mention similar, warm springtime dates.

No wonder the most popular bumper sticker announcing the start of another tournament year at Colonial features the words, “Ahh Spring!” with the familiar clubhouse logo.

Lord Byron’s Tournament

2016 AT&T Byron Nelson Championship

Although the Byron Nelson, which started in 1968, was the latest of the four PGA Tour events to be held in Texas, it achieved two important distinctions that have become hallmarks for pro-golf events around the country. First, it became a fundraising powerhouse, raising millions for its own charity, the Salesmanship Club, now known as the Momentous Institute, and it was the first PGA Tour event to raise $100 million. Second, it honored a legendary golfer as its tournament namesake.

“When we started, we were the first tournament to have the name of a golfer in our tournament’s headline billing,” said Tournament Director Jon Drago. “The Salesmanship Club came to Byron and told him they were going to do a professional tournament on a yearly basis and asked for his help in lending his name.”

The civic-minded Dallas Salesmanship Club had been involved in raising money for its youth charity organization since the 1920s, originally by sponsoring Golden Gloves boxing and Dallas Cowboys pre-season football. But the 1963 PGA Championship at Dallas Athletic Club gave them the idea that golf could be the green-grass vehicle for their fundraising success.

The first tournament with Byron Nelson’s name was held in 1968 at Preston Trail Golf Club, preceded by a gala pro-am dinner, which included Texas governor John Connelly and Nelson’s own mother, at the only such function she ever attended.

Miller Barber from Sherman, Texas, won the first Byron Nelson tournament. Two years later, Jack Nicklaus defeated Arnold Palmer in a dramatic sudden-death playoff. Since then, the Nelson tournament has drawn the greatest names in golf to compete and win at the Dallas-area event that honors one of golf’s greatest champions.

In 1997, after his landmark Masters victory, Tiger Woods went into total seclusion, turning down a White House invitation by President Bill Clinton, but he was unwilling to turn down Nelson and returned to professional golf with an appearance at the Nelson tournament, which he won before record-breaking crowds.

“There is no doubt that Byron helped the credibility of our tournaments over the years, recruiting players, with his prestige and personality,” Drago added.

Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson are famous winners, along with Woods’ victory, in a 1995-97 stretch. Other winners have included Nick Price, Jason Day, and Sergio Garcia, the only golfer to have won twice at the current site, the TPC Four Seasons Resort, including his 2016 victory. Next year will be the 50th that the Nelson name will have officially graced the tournament and the 24th at the Four Seasons course in Irving.

But change is certainly in the North Texas air, as the tournament recently announced that it will be moving in 2018 to the new Trinity Forest Golf Club south of downtown Dallas, a Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw design, which will challenge the best players from Texas and the world.

“We’re certainly proud of the first 50 years of the Byron Nelson, but we feel the future is very bright with the new Coore-Crenshaw Trinity Forest Course,” Drago said.

The future of professional golf in Texas is always evolving. The World Golf Championships-Dell Match Play is back for a second year at Austin Country Club, after a hugely successful first-year run in 2016, which was won by Jason Day.

The Champions Tour is continuing its successful run at The Woodlands, the former site of the Shell Houston Open, entering its second decade of showcasing golf greats from an earlier era. The LPGA has drawn record crowds at its annual springtime event at Las Colinas Country Club in Irving, a few minutes from the Byron Nelson site.

Texas has always had the largest number of championship professional golfers, with the annual pro golf stages to showcase their Lone Star golfing talent to their home state and the golf world at large.

-Words by Art Stricklin, photos courtesy of AT&T Byron Nelson, Valero Texas Open, Erich Schlegel, and The Colonial Country Club

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